Talk therapy is an important part of mental healthcare. But what happens when you’re ready to move on from a therapist?
Even if you feel confident that parting ways is the right choice, breaking up is hard to do in any relationship. If the thought of telling your therapist you’re leaving makes you uncomfortable, you might be tempted to ghost them. Is that … OK?
Leaving without explanation is generally frowned upon in dating because there are feelings involved. For similar reasons, ghosting usually isn’t recommended in therapy either.
“The reason therapy works is because there are real feelings on both sides,” says Dr. Anna Lembke, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University who specializes in provider-patient relationships. “It’s a unique relationship. The therapist comes to the table with their needs met to serve the needs of the patient. The patient gives some monetary compensation, but it’s a real relationship.”
But there are circumstances where it’s acceptable to ghost your therapist. Here’s a guide to the unspoken rules of leaving a therapist — when you can ghost, when you really shouldn’t and how to break up the right way.
When Can You Ghost Your Therapist?
You think the therapist is breaching your privacy. Your therapist should not be sharing information about your sessions with other people without your consent.
If another client of your therapist tells you they shared personal information about you, that’s a problem. But it’s not always that easy to know if your therapist has violated your privacy. Dr. Dana Harron, a clinical psychologist based in Washington, DC, says that if they talk about other clients with you, it might be a sign they aren’t taking your privacy seriously either.
“You may not get much out of healing out of [confronting the therapist],” says Harron, who works with Monarch Wellness & Psychotherapy.
In that case, you could report the therapist to a state licensing board. “You can file an anonymous complaint or call the licensing board and tell them,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Veroshk Williams. Just Google your state’s board.
The therapist crosses relationship boundaries. Your therapist may know more about you than your family does. But the therapeutic relationship should never leave the room.
“You don’t have any ties other than achieving a goal [in therapy],” says Williams. She adds that if the relationship develops outside of therapy, expectations change, and that can get in the way of a patient’s progress.
If a therapist asks you on a date, sexually harasses you or wants to hang out as friends, they’re crossing a line.
“That’s all just really not okay,” says Harron, “and it’s completely fine to ghost a therapist who has gone in that direction.”
Additionally, Williams suggests reporting a therapist who commits any of those behaviors to your state’s licensing board, as they’re all ethical violations.
You’ve seen them for less than a month. If you only did an initial consultation, or attended up to one month’s worth of sessions and didn’t feel like you jibed with the therapist, it’s okay to leave without talking through your decision.
“It’s not odd to ghost in this situation,” says Laura Pearl, a licensed clinical social worker with a New York-based therapy practice. “This is often how long it takes to determine whether there is a good fit.”
There’s a caveat, though: Cancel any follow-up appointments so that someone else can take your slot and you aren’t charged a no-show fee. An email to the therapist that you won’t be coming or scheduling any follow-ups is sufficient.
When Shouldn’t You Ghost Your Therapist?
You’re afraid of confrontation. Fear of confrontation is often a reason people want to ghost their therapists, but experts suggest giving yourself permission to address conflict head-on.
“When you ghost, you are sending yourself the message that you don’t have the right to say, ‘This isn’t working for me,’” Harron says. “Part of navigating therapy is learning to navigate relationships. Part of navigating relationships is navigating conflict.”
Even if the conversation ends up being difficult, you may walk away feeling better than you would have if you never addressed the situation at all.
“If your therapist apologizes for a mistake [like constantly looking at their watch], that can be very healing,” Harron says.
Sometimes, fear of conflict stems from a desire to avoid hurting someone. It’s a common reason people ghost in dating, and the same is true in therapy.
“It’s hard to say to someone directly that we want to leave them,” says Lembke.
Therapists do have feelings, but they also specialize in helping you manage and express yours.
“You should be able to discuss everything with your therapist,” Harron says. “It’s their job to handle emotional conversations.”
You want to pause. Perhaps you just want to take a break. Experts say it’s still a good idea to discuss it with your therapist.
“The therapist can help you figure out the best next steps for you,” says Williams.
Should you later decide to sever ties permanently, experts say you don’t necessarily need to come in for one final session to let the therapist know. But it’s best to tell them you’re not returning.
“If someone isn’t going to come back, I can move someone else off the waitlist, and they can get treatment,” Harron says.
You’ve reached your goals. Many people don’t start therapy to stay in it forever. If you feel like you’re in a better place, you might make the call to end the therapeutic relationship. But experts say you should still tell your therapist. This final session can be gratifying for you.
“We would talk about all the progress you made,” Pearl says. “You accomplished a lot.”
How should you go about breaking up with a therapist?
Don’t put it off. Harron says it’s tempting to save the breakup conversation for the end of the session, so you don’t have to talk much about it. She advises against that approach.
“Talk about it at the beginning of the session so you can talk about what went on and why this isn’t a good fit,” she says.
Set the tone. If you’re feeling anxious, you may want to let your therapist know.
“Start with, ‘It’s difficult for me to tell you this,’” Harron suggests. “That might help everyone have gentleness around the topic.”
Be completely honest. Honesty, even if it involves constructive criticism, is the best policy.
“Try ‘I’ statements,” Harron suggests. “Say how you feel or how you think. ‘I think I need a different therapist because…’, or ‘I would like to take a break because…’ The more you can share, the better.”
Come at it from an altruistic mindset. Though it may feel like you’re about to crush your therapist, remember that some constructive criticism might benefit them.
“It is valuable feedback for them that might help a future client whereas if that person never gets that real-time feedback, then they do not have the opportunity to learn, grow and change,” Lembke says.
You’re also doing yourself a favor.
“Maybe it means something to you to tell them that,” Lembke says. “Just to have said, ‘I deserve your full attention,’ can be powerful.”
Breaking up with your mental health provider can have long-lasting benefits outside of therapy.
“The first and most important lesson is that you can do hard things,” Harron says.
You can also learn that facing conflict head-on doesn’t have to be a negative experience, even if it’s a hard one.
“Not everyone we express disappointment in is going to start yelling at us,” Lembke says. “Every functional relationship that I’ve seen largely rests on the ability of the individuals to talk through their differences and come to a consensus.”